When Michael Hayden was a young air force officer in the 1980s, the military stationed him as an intelligence attaché in Bulgaria. There, the man who would rise to the top of the American intelligence community in the post–September 11 era lived under constant surveillance: he and his wife, believing their apartment to be bugged, kept toy erasable pads scattered around it so they could converse in writing. Against that tense cold war backdrop, Hayden was once talking with a political officer in the Bulgarian government and became frustrated, blurting out, “What is truth to you?” The Communist Party apparatchik supposedly answered, “Truth? Truth is what serves the Party.”
In his memoir Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terrorism, Hayden uses this anecdote to set the stage for a discussion of how intelligence officials are supposed to function in a modern democracy. Their crucial task, he writes, is to be “fact-based and see the world as it is,” supplying complete and accurate information to policymakers who make difficult decisions. His veneration of this ideal accords with his contempt for certain journalists he sees as “hopelessly agenda-driven” and with his self-image as a truth-teller. He observes that an entity that lives outside the law, as the Central Intelligence Agency does when it carries out covert operations abroad, must be “honest,” adding: “Especially with yourself. All the time.”
When intelligence officials live up to this standard for candor, the information they supply may be inconvenient for the various agendas of decision-makers. When President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ran the country, Hayden’s CIA, he writes, told the White House that the insurgency in Iraq was spiraling into a sectarian civil war, and later that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. The latter assessment, which did not serve the purposes of hawks who wanted to escalate the confrontation with Iran, led many on the political right to conclude that the CIA was taking “revenge” on the Bush White House for “being forced to take the heat” for inaccurate intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs before the war. Hayden writes that such talk “made for a nice, tight story, but it just wasn’t true. The facts took us to our conclusions, not retribution or predisposition.” During the transition after Senator Barack Obama won the presidency, Hayden and other intelligence officials “would work to get access to him and then create as many of what we crudely called ‘aw, shit’ moments as possible.” This meant telling the president-elect
about the world as they saw it, not through the lens of campaign rhetoric, tracking polls, or the world as you wanted it to be. The “aw, shit” count simply reflected how many times they had been successful, as in “Aw shit, wish we hadn’t said that during that campaign stop in Buffalo.”
Hayden suggests that President…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.